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Why We Need Good Lawyers and Investigators on Both Sides

The National Registry of Exonerations is the most comprehensive collection of known exonerations in the country. It was launched in May 2012 as a joint project of the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law.

Its first report, which was issued as part of its launch, chronicled 873 known exonerations that had been identified since 1989. Since then, the Registry has continued to record new exonerations as they occur as well as previously unidentified ones that occurred in years past. Through December 2013, the total number of exonerations has climbed to 1,281. The vast majority of these have been in homicide cases (47%) and sexual-assault cases (31%), but that’s mainly because of our limited resources and attention. After all, it’s usually in the more serious cases (with the harshest sentences) that we ever stop to listen and work to unearth a wrongful conviction. For all cases over time, the most common causes of wrongful convictions are false accusation (56%); official misconduct (46%); and mistaken identification (38%).

Earlier this month, the Registry released its report for 2013, which added more cases to the tally, 87, than any year before. That number included 40 exonerations in murder cases, 18 in sexual-assault cases, and one of a defendant who had been sentenced to death. Notably, nearly 40% of the exonerations for the year were obtained at the initiative of law enforcement or with its help. Overall, 29% of exonerations since 1989 have included cooperation by police or prosecutors or both.

On the heels of the 2013 report, here is a look at one guy who’s trying. He is the district attorney for Dallas County, Texas, and in 2007, he created the country’s first Conviction Integrity Unit. He probably caught some flak for it at the time, but the idea has caught on and been adopted in other states and counties, including Cook County (Illinois), Wayne County (Michigan), and Brooklyn/Kings County (New York).

Now that’s uncommonly good.

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